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Erectile Dysfunction (ED) Caused by Clogged Arteries

Kelly Brown MD, MBA

Reviewed by Kelly Brown, MD

Written by Grace Gallagher

Published 05/09/2021

Updated 03/05/2024

When you imagine having clogged arteries, maybe you think of what happens if you order a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich every morning, or get winded climbing stairs. What probably doesn’t cross your mind is your sexual health.

While clogged arteries can cause shortness of breath, chest pain or even a heart attack, there is another lesser-known side effect of clogged arteries: erectile dysfunction (ED). In fact, atherosclerosis, a disease in which your arteries become clogged due to plaque buildup, is one of the most common physical causes of ED.

Clogged arteries can cause a penile blockage, known more casually as a “penis clog” — which, be honest, you may have Googled to find this article (we get it). Here, we’ll talk about the relationship between ED and clogged arteries, plus how to treat this type of ED with medication and lifestyle changes.

What does the heart have to do with the penis? It's a weirdly poetic question, but if you’re struggling to maintain an erection, it’s actually essential that you understand the relationship between clogged arteries and ED.

In fact, understanding vascular erectile dysfunction symptoms can give you important insight into your overall health.

Here’s the TLDR:

  • Causes of ED include depression, anxiety, diabetes, obesity and certain medications, but this condition is increasingly thought to be a predominantly vascular disorder.

  • Atherosclerosis can have effects throughout your body, but the penis is often the first thing affected.

  • Some ED medications may help to improve your erections if you have clogged arteries.

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If this were health class, then today would be the day we covered how erections work. Glad you made it, as this is important for understanding how clogged arteries cause ED.

You might think erections are about wanting to have sex, but they’re really all about healthy blood flow. When you feel sexually aroused (okay, that’s important, too), impulses from your nervous system cause the vascular smooth muscle that controls blood flow to the erectile tissue of your penis to relax.

This relaxation allows blood to flow in and fill the corpora cavernosa — the two sponge-like areas of erectile tissue located inside your penis.

As blood fills this tissue, your penis becomes larger and firmer, AKA you get an erection. At the same time, other vascular mechanisms prevent the venous drainage of the blood,, helping to maintain your erection during sex.

After you reach orgasm and ejaculate, the same process occurs in reverse, with the vascular mechanisms allowing venous drainage and blood flowing out of your erectile tissue.

Clogged arteries can affect this process by narrowing your blood vessels and reducing blood flow throughout your body, including to your penis.

You can even think of the penis as the fortune teller of the body. If you’re experiencing ED, there’s a good chance that cardiovascular diseases (CVD) may be in your future, as ED is seen as an early manifestation of this disorder. Some researchers go so far as to call vasculogenic erectile dysfunction — or ED caused by blood flow issues — the “canary in the coal mine” for cardiovascular disease.

One study done between 2005 and 2011 found that patients with severe ED who had no vascular risk factors at the beginning of the study had a more than 30 percent risk of developing CVD or hypertension in a 10-year timeframe.

This may kill the mood if you think about it during sex, but an erection is hard and firm because the penis is engorged with blood.

Since your penile artery is small, even modest changes to blood flow throughout your body can have a noticeable impact on your erections.

Vigorous to moderate aerobic exercise (by which we mean anything that gets your heart rate up, not just  ‘80s step aerobics) has been shown to help with ED, likely because it improves blood flow in the body. So, if you start working out more, you may notice stronger erections due to better blood flow.

On the flip side, if less blood is flowing, you may experience weaker erections or ED. As you know by now, when your arteries are clogged, it’s not just the coronary arteries that are affected. Atherosclerosis causes cholesterol to build up in the blood vessel walls and form plaques throughout the body, which makes the vessels narrow and slows down blood flow — including to the penis.

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ED is a common symptom of clogged arteries, so addressing the underlying cause can help treat your ED. But before you learn how to treat the condition, it’s important to understand what causes atherosclerosis.

Several factors, including genetics and family history, eating a high-fat diet, high cholesterol and unhealthy lifestyle choices like smoking, all contribute. While you can’t do anything about what genes your parents gave you, many of these risk factors are changeable.

Because of this, medication and lifestyle tweaks (more on both in a few) are recommended to address ED. Read on for more info on treating ED that’s caused by clogged arteries.

ED Medications

Some cases of ED are treated with medications called PDE5 inhibitors. These work by improving blood flow to the erectile tissue of your penis, making it easier for you to get and stay hard when you feel sexually aroused. Their ability to cause erections was actually discovered by accident while studying their ability to treat hypertension and angina (that’s chest pain).

Sildenafil (you probably know it as Viagra®) is one of the most common erectile dysfunction medications. It was FDA-approved for erectile dysfunction in 1998 and works by increasing blood flow to the penis.

Here’s where things get tricky, though. Viagra is not recommended for people with heart disease or high cholesterol, both of which are linked to clogged arteries.

So before popping the little blue pill — or another similar one —  it’s best to check in with a healthcare provider or urologist who can help discern what’s causing your ED, look at your overall health, and make recommendations accordingly.

Other commonly prescribed PDE5 inhibitors include Cialis® (tadalafil), Levitra® (vardenafil) and Stendra® (avanafil).

Coronary Artery Disease Medication

If you have significantly clogged arteries, your healthcare provider may prescribe medication for coronary artery disease —  the disease caused by atherosclerosis.

Several types of medication are used to treat coronary artery disease and other cardiovascular health conditions, including statins, beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers and blood thinners such as aspirin.

However, these medications don’t directly treat erectile dysfunction.

And more potentially bad news? Some medications prescribed for coronary artery disease and other cardiovascular problems can interact with ED medications, which means they’re unsafe to use together — a healthcare provider will help you figure out the safest and most effective options for you.

But since these medications are prescribed to reduce the severity of clogged arteries and other cardiovascular issues, they should help with ED if used correctly, since they address the underlying cause.

Lifestyle Changes

Maybe you’re one of those people who rolls your eyes at the idea that lifestyle tweaks can improve ED. But common risk factors of atherosclerosis, and therefore ED, include diabetes, hypertension, smoking, obesity and hyperlipidemia (a large amount of fat in the blood).

Research suggests that managing these factors can prevent ED, and one of the least invasive ways to manage them is through lifestyle changes.

It may seem daunting but these little changes can make a big difference. Let’s explore some easy ways to make them.

Quit smoking

If you smoke, you’ve almost certainly thought about quitting before, and it’s definitely easier said than done. But quitting smoking can improve ED (not to mention your overall health), and maybe that’s the nudge you need to finally stop for good.

Research shows that smoking affects the vascular system and can worsen erectile function — long story short, smoking constricts blood vessels and depletes nitric oxide, which can cause ED. Trials show that men who stop smoking (especially younger men without comorbidities) see improvement in ED.

Eat a healthy diet

No one is saying you need to swear off melted cheese forever (the horror), but making some tweaks to your diet can be helpful in the fight against vascular ED.

The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan is a good place to start. This plan recommends fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and limits saturated fats, salt and added sugars.

Exercise

Relax, pals — you don’t have to start training for a marathon or go anywhere near a CrossFit gym (unless you want to!). Jumping rope in your yard or taking a walk around the neighborhood while you’re on a call is all it takes to improve heart health.

The American Heart Association recommends gradually working up to at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, or 75 minutes of “vigorous aerobic activity.”

Regular exercise can help to lower your LDL cholesterol (the “bad” one), increase your HDL cholesterol (the “good” one), reduce your blood pressure and strengthen your heart, all of which keep your arteries in good condition and make it easier for blood to flow throughout your body.

Maintain a healthy weight

Obesity and ED are associated, which means that obese people often experience ED as well. More research is needed, but animal studies show that weight loss via bariatric surgery can improve ED.

Losing just three to five percent of your current weight — that’s just about eight to 13 pounds for a 250-pound person — can help control coronary heart disease risk factors like high blood cholesterol and diabetes.

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ED probably isn’t something you sit around chatting about with your buddies, so it can feel isolating. But you’re not alone— erectile dysfunction is a common sexual dysfunction, affecting approximately 30 million men in the US.

 It’s so common, in fact, that a routine assessment for ED is recommended in all men over age forty. This is important because an ED diagnosis may help identify and decrease the risk of potential cardiovascular events.

There are other factors, like urethral stricture, genital deformities and certain untreated sexually transmitted diseases that could also contribute to ED and are important to screen for.

But here, we’re talking specifically about vascular ED, so here’s what to remember about ED caused by a clog.

  • ED can be a warning sign that a heart attack or a stroke may follow, often in the next three to five years. As they say, the penis keeps the score (or something like that), so it really is important to take ED seriously, especially if you know you have heart issues.

  •  Improving your vascular dysfunction with medications and lifestyle modifications (diet, exercise, etc.) is not only necessary to your overall health, but it may also improve your ED.

  •  Additionally, adding a PDE5i medication to your routine can specifically target your ED and help improve erection.

The good news? You’re in the right place to start treating your ED. We offer ED medications online, including sildenafil, Viagra, tadalafil, Cialis and Stendra.

Want to learn more about the causes of ED and treatment options? Check out our guide to erectile dysfunction.

18 Sources

  1. Moon, K. H., Park, S. Y., & Kim, Y. W. (2019). Obesity and Erectile Dysfunction: From Bench to Clinical Implication. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6479091/
  2. Ibrahim, A., Ali, M., Kiernan, T. J., & Stack, A. G. (2018). Erectile Dysfunction and Ischaemic Heart Disease. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6331774/
  3. Schwartz, B.G. & Kloner, R.A. (2011, May 31). Cardiovascular Implications of Erectile Dysfunction. Circulation. 123 (21). Retrieved from https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/circulationaha.110.017681
  4. Ostfeld, R., et al. (2020). Vasculogenic Erectile Dysfunction: The Impact of Diet and Lifestyle. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33227246/
  5. Pozzi, E., et al. (2020). Longitudinal Risk of Developing Cardiovascular Diseases in Patients With Erectile Dysfunction—Which Patients Deserve More Attention? Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32340919/
  6. Panchatsharam, P., Durand, J. Zito, P. (2023). Physiology, Erection. StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK513278/
  7. Ma, M., Yu, B., Qin, F., & Yuan, J. (2020). Current approaches to the diagnosis of vascular erectile dysfunction. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7215019/
  8. Panchatsharam, P., Durand, J. Zito, P. (2023). Physiology, Erection. StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK513278/
  9. NIH. (n.d.) What Is Atherosclerosis? Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/atherosclerosis
  10. Dhaliwal A, Gupta M. PDE5 Inhibitor. [Updated 2020 Jun 23]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK549843/
  11. Kovac, J. R., Labbate, C., Ramasamy, R., Tang, D., & Lipshultz, L. I. (2015). Effects of cigarette smoking on erectile dysfunction. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4485976/
  12. DASH Eating Plan. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/dash-eating-plan
  13. American Heart Association. (n.d.) American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids. Retrieved from https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/aha-recs-for-physical-activity-in-adults
  14. NIH. (n.d.) What Is Atherosclerosis? Treatment. Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/atherosclerosis
  15. NIH. (n.d.) Definition & Facts for Erectile Dysfunction. Retrieved from https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/urologic-diseases/erectile-dysfunction/definition-facts
  16. Miner, M., Parish, S. J., Billups, K. L., Paulos, M., Sigman, M., & Blaha, M. J. (2019). Erectile Dysfunction and Subclinical Cardiovascular Disease. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S205005211830009X
  17. Kałużny, A., Krukowski, J., & Matuszewski, M. (2019). Erectile dysfunction after urethroplasty. Central European Journal of Urology. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6979548/
  18. Muller, A., Mulhall, J. (2005).Sexual dysfunction in the patient with prostatitis. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16205492/
Editorial Standards

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references. See a mistake? Let us know at [email protected]!

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

Kelly Brown MD, MBA
Kelly Brown, MD

Dr. Kelly Brown is a board certified Urologist and fellowship trained in Andrology. She is an accomplished men’s health expert with a robust background in healthcare innovation, clinical medicine, and academic research. Dr. Brown was previously Medical Director of a male fertility startup where she lead strategy and design of their digital health platform, an innovative education and telehealth model for delivering expert male fertility care.

She completed her undergraduate studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (go Heels!) with a Bachelor of Science in Radiologic Science and a Minor in Chemistry. She took a position at University of California Los Angeles as a radiologic technologist in the department of Interventional Cardiology, further solidifying her passion for medicine. She also pursued the unique opportunity to lead departmental design and operational development at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, sparking her passion for the business of healthcare.

Dr. Brown then went on to obtain her doctorate in medicine from the prestigious Northwestern University - Feinberg School of Medicine and Masters in Business Administration from Northwestern University - Kellogg School of Management, with a concentration in Healthcare Management. During her surgical residency in Urology at University of California San Francisco, she utilized her research year to focus on innovations in telemedicine and then served as chief resident with significant contributions to clinical quality improvement. Dr. Brown then completed her Andrology Fellowship at Medical College of Wisconsin, furthering her expertise in male fertility, microsurgery, and sexual function.

Her dedication to caring for patients with compassion, understanding, as well as a unique ability to make guys instantly comfortable discussing anything from sex to sperm makes her a renowned clinician. In addition, her passion for innovation in healthcare combined with her business acumen makes her a formidable leader in the field of men’s health.

Dr. Brown is an avid adventurer; summiting Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (twice!) and hiking the incredible Torres del Paine Trek in Patagonia, Chile. She deeply appreciates new challenges and diverse cultures on her travels. She lives in Denver with her husband, two children, and beloved Bernese Mountain Dog. You can find Dr. Brown on LinkedIn for more information.

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